Gia Margaret's "Sleep Rock" Is Actually Very Energizing
Gia Margaret’s songs sound like hazy dreams about deceptively ordinary things—an unfamiliar dog in the yard, a partner opening the blinds to let the light in when they know you’ve been in the darkness too long. Each moment is rendered so tenderly that it almost feels as though it was plucked from your own memory, but don’t let the smallness of these images fool you. In Margaret’s hands, each of them gains a world-shifting weight.
The Chicago-based artist’s 2018 debut on Orindal Records, There’s Always Glimmer, has gradually been gaining traction since its release, and an ongoing international tour with Welsh musicians Novo Amor (and two collaborative songs) has helped build Margaret’s profile at home and overseas. There’s Always Glimmer is being released in Europe via Dalliance Recordings on May 24, bringing her shimmering brand of deeply personal folk to an even wider audience.
Your music is so interesting because all of the electronic elements are very understated. They don’t dominate the sound, they just kind of lay underneath it, if that makes sense. I was hoping you could talk about how you developed this sound that is very unique to you, in a lot of ways.
I was a little worried about the electronic element, especially with “Smoke”—I was like, “Is this getting too electronic?” I really do like electronic music, but I’m really into analog electronic music, which is a little more subtle and less EDM, less crazy. It’s more like chillwave, and I’ve always wanted to incorporate that stuff into my music, but I still don’t have the knowledge, so I brought on an engineer to help me with “Smoke” and with “West”. It’s slowly evolving. I think I may play around with more electronic sounds for the next record, but I’m also reverting back completely to just acoustic, folky sounds. So, I don’t even know if that answered your question. [laughs] I think some of the songs just took shape, and I knew that I wanted some electronic percussion on them, but I didn’t want it to be too elaborate. I just wanted a few added vibes, I guess.
Another really big strength of yours is that you have the ability to take these very small, mundane moments and make them so big and sublime, almost. “Groceries” and “Birthday” are both really great examples of that. What inspired those songs?
Well, “Groceries” sort of was inspired by the sweetest gesture of someone making sure that you eat. My boyfriend, when we were living together, I was going through a really hard time. My grandma had just passed away and I was super depressed and I was working three jobs, and he would just bring groceries home. He would buy the things that I liked to eat, and it wasn’t until months after that period of time that I reflected on that and I was like, “God, that was the sweetest thing, someone making sure that I ate.” It’s a super simple topic, but I’m sure we all have experienced that in our lives, whether it’s our parents feeding us or our friends making sure we’re okay. So that song was inspired by that, I guess.
I love how the song goes from this very small, concrete thing, “You brought the groceries”, and then it goes into this big statement, “You let the light in”, which is—it just feels so huge to me.
That was a super literal statement. There was one day where I was in my bed all day, I had a day off, and you know when you’re just so depressed that you’re just like, “I don’t want to do anything, I just want to lay here,” and he came in and he just opened the blinds a little bit, and I was like, “That’s so sweet. Even just letting a little light in so you can start your day.”
It’s a very small thing that has a bigger impact than maybe you even realize in the moment.
Yeah, totally. And then “Birthday”—I guess I’ve never fully talked about that song, but it could be about a million things. I had a couple hard years where I lost grandparents and I pushed myself away from friendships and my relationship, and another simple celebration of someone’s birthday, and imagining not being with them on their birthday, it’s pretty straightforward.
But again, it’s such a seemingly minor thing that has such big implications, and so much more meaning.
I have a friend who lost her dad, and I think every year when her dad’s birthday comes along, it’s a tough time for her. She’ll turn off her phone and just totally reflect on that. But it’s a day that changes when somebody is gone. You can’t not think about that.
I’m always really interested in how place shapes an artist’s work, and I know that you are sort of established as a Chicago artist now and you live in Chicago. Are you from Chicago originally?
I am, I was born here. I grew up sort of in the suburbs of Chicago, and then my family moved closer to the city when I was in middle school, so I spent a lot of time in the city as an adolescent, and then I went to college here, too, and I’ve been here ever since. I have a very love/hate relationship with the city, I always feel like I want to leave and I’m like, “This isn’t the place for me, I’m here because of circumstance, I was born here, my family’s here,” but whenever I leave Chicago, especially for long periods of time, and then I come home, I’m like, “Okay, this is actually home.” I do love the city.
I think a lot of people feel that way! I’ve lived in D.C. for about eight years and I also have a love/hate relationship with this city, but I always enjoy coming home to it. I’m like, “Okay, this is where my life is.”
Yeah, even the smell of it. Whenever I leave and come home, all of my senses are totally grateful to be back in Chicago.
“Whenever i leave and come home, all of my senses are totally grateful to be back in chicago.”
Chicago has a pretty robust music scene, too.
Yeah, Chicago has a really interesting music scene. I never really felt like I had a place here. I feel like people make grittier, harder music. I’ve never found a place for my gentle, soft music. [laughs] There was a folk scene that I was a part of for a while. I think for the second half of my twenties I was a little removed from the music scene—I was just recording things a lot at home and playing shows here and there, but not as much, and it wasn’t until I signed to my label that I felt a really strong sense of community. The label just released a mixtape of all the artists called Gentle Weirdos, and that’s exactly how I would describe everyone. It wasn’t until I signed with Orindal that I felt like I found my place here. I’m actually the only Chicago band on the label, but whenever they [other Orindal artists] come through town we play shows together.
Speaking of your softer music, I saw somewhere that you described it as “sleep rock”, which I thought was funny. Are there other bands that you like or that have influenced you that you would maybe classify the same way?
Originally I came up with that as kind of a joke, because people would always ask me, “What kind of music do you play?”, and I would always have a hard time defining it. It’s not exactly folk, it’s not singer-songwriter-y. I wanted to be a collage artist for a really long time. If you go on my Soundcloud, the earliest recordings that I have are just sound-clipped stuff, but it just sort of evolved into what it is, which is like sleepy rock music. I mean, I play electric guitar, so that’s like “rock”, I guess.
Some artists that influenced me—early on, Nick Drake was a huge influence. LVL UP was a huge influence as I was making my record. Early Sia, Imogen Heap—Imogen Heap is like my musical mother. All of the Frou Frou stuff. Whenever I’m in a bad mood I put that stuff on, and it will lift me up so much. I’ve been getting really into this band called Fog Lake, super-mellow rock music. Anything that’s somewhat mellow and has a bunch of layers, I’m pretty much in.
Have you been working on any new material?
I have been. I finished this record in February or March of last , so since then I’ve written a couple of songs. I bought a new organ over the summer. It’s not new, it’s from the 80’s and kind of clunky, but I’ve been writing a lot on it. So yeah, I wrote a song on the organ and I’m going to be releasing that, and trying to figure out what’s next. I’d love to just start another record, but I have a tour coming up, so I don’t know. I’m always writing, and I’m always working on something. I probably have a record or some material that’s ready to go on a record, just between new songs that I’ve written and songs that didn’t make it onto the last record, and just some older songs that I wanted to revisit, but I just didn’t have enough room on the record or the time. I’ll always be releasing new music.
How long have you been playing guitar, and did you learn guitar or piano first?
I learned piano first, I grew up playing classical piano. I didn’t really pick up a guitar until high school. I got a black guitar for my 15th birthday, was super into Dashboard Confessional. Some of the first songs I ever learned were Dashboard Confessional. To their credit, I got super into alternate tunings, which I’m still into, because of them. So I spent my teenage years just kind of playing in my bedroom. No one knew that I really sang.
I didn’t sing that much until college, but I got really into guitar playing when I went to music school. And then songwriting didn’t come until I took a songwriting elective in college, and my teacher forced me to sing in front of the class. And I thought that I could have my roommate, who was a vocal major, sing all the songs that I wrote, but he [my teacher] basically told me, “If you don’t sing, you won’t pass this class.” So I did it, and I ended up liking it.
It was terrifying because I’m really shy, and I’ve been doing this on and off for ten years and I still have a hard time getting in front of people. But he was super encouraging, and I played my first recital. I had done recitals before for piano, but the most terrifying moment was singing in front of my family, and they were just like “What? We didn’t know that you sang. You’ve never sang in your entire life.” I wouldn’t even sing along in the car with them, because I was super shy. So that came much later, I think I was 21 when I first started singing. I still feel like I’m learning how to use my voice, it still feels like a foreign thing. But it feels natural at the same time, so it’s weird.
I think every artist has to figure out their style for themselves, and figure out what works for them.
Yeah, I think in the beginning, you’re just mimicking artists you really like. For me it was Feist and Regina Spektor, in two-thousand-and...I don’t even know. 2008? So, a lot of my early songs sound like me trying to rip off Feist. It probably took me four or five years to really figure out what my voice was.
It’s funny, I feel like I’ve talked to a number of female artists around our age—I’m 30—
Yeah, me too.
[Laughs] I’ve talked to a number of female artists who are like “Regina Spektor! I was obsessed with her, I loved her so much.” And I did, too.
I’m re-listened to Begin To Hope last month, and it was still just the most enjoyable thing. I hadn’t listened to it in a couple of years, and I was like “Wow, this still is so good.”
It’s just really cool that there are these touchstones from that time that we can all sort of come back to.